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unPACKed podcast: Must See Technology and Trends

Listen as PMMI Media Group Editors explore packaging technologies from PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2023.

Before we completely put PACK EXPO Las Vegas in our rearview mirror, unPACKed revisits the latest in must-see technology and trends from the largest PACK EXPO Las Vegas ever. We sat down with Keren Sookne from Healthcare Packaging and Matt Reynolds from Packaging World to delve into some of the highlights each saw on the PACK EXPO Las Vegas show floor. Automation takes center stage, addressing the urgent need for faster and more efficient production, but each editor added a few other innovations that they uncovered at this year’s show. Let’s have a listen.

Transcript

Sean Riley:

Today we have two PMMI Media Group editors. My name is Sean Riley. I'm the Senior News Director at PMMI Media Group. And to my left I have Keren Sookne from Healthcare Packaging. And to my right, I have Matt Reynolds from Packaging World, and they're just going to bring you some of the things that they've seen on the show floor today. Automation is king, obviously, and people need it faster. They need products more efficiently. There are workforce issues. Automation can help solve that need with staffing and things like that. Obviously automation is something that's really taken over the last couple shows. I guess I'll start with you, Matt. Is that something that we're seeing again today?

Matt Reynolds:

I think one of the constants that, at least in the areas that I was walking, is the constant advance of robots and more specifically collaborative robots, cobots. You used to be able to almost think of robots like a gated robot behind fencing as one type of technology and a collaborative robot as a completely separate type of technology. That was much slower. The payloads were much lower, the reach was much smaller, and the speeds were much lower. Some of that was out of necessity because they are collaborative, they're supposed to be working with people. But more recently, in recent years, and this has just been borne out this year, is just the number of collaborative robots that really rival traditional robotic installations in terms of reach, payload and speeds, but still maintain that collaborative capability via sensors that just recognize who's in the zone, who's in the area.

I saw quite a few today. One was at Columbia/Okura, that tend to use UR, the universal robot robotics. Again, same thing, heavy payload, longer reach, faster speeds. This one was I think a 44 pound payload. A 20 kilogram, heavier than you'd normally see in a lot of the collaborative settings. But again, with all the safety features that you would expect from a collaborative robot. Paxiom had its FANUC robots just swinging around right out in the middle of the booth, no gating, no nothing. Again, heavier payload capability, faster, and then they tend to slow down, of course, when you're within a certain zone using sensors. Yaskawa had a big one, 30 kilogram payload. This is heavy stuff. The end effector, the end of arm tool also, these tend to be using vacuum technology, so you're still using 50, 100, 150 pounds without grippers, with vacuum tech. A lot of collaborative robots. Collaborative robots are, instead of robotics having two separate lanes, it just appears they're converging into a single lane where pretty much anything that you want to have collaborative capabilities plus full speed and full payload capabilities, eventually they feel like it's just going to merge and we're getting closer and closer to it.

Sean Riley:

That's not only something that it seemed like at first with collaborative robots, we wanted them to be able to work alongside other people, sort of filling people's jobs that they couldn't find people to do. And it sounds like they're going beyond that and just serving more of a maximum robot capability.

Matt Reynolds:

Yeah. Max capacity that might only have one supervisor or one human individual overseeing three or four of these. That person needs to have access and so on, and to be able to get in and get out. The robots will slow down. They'll stop when they sense people in the arena. But yeah, again, the lines between collaborative robots and just robots are just blurring, especially with the traditional, what you'd imagine the five to six axis arm type style robots. Yeah.

Sean Riley:

Really cool. Keren, how about you?

Keren Sookne:

Yeah. Yeah. You guys can hear me. Cool. Yeah. Earlier today I went by Robotiq'a booth and they have the PE20 cobot palletizing solution, similar to what Matt is talking about. This is a cobot that's very fast. It has a payload of 18 kilograms, so that's about 40 pounds, stacks heights of 84 inches. And the idea here is this isn't a very small footprint. It's compact design. It's easy to integrate into. Everybody is struggling for floor space right now, and especially if you've been doing things manually, this is one way of just getting a cobot solution in there that is small and easy to manage. Yeah, so food and beverage might be the most obvious kind of use case for this. But I mean, it's suitable for a variety of industries. And then one thing when we talk about cobots is that as these cobots, they're safe. As Matt said, they're swinging around the people in the booth. But as they do get more friendly looking and sometimes more human looking, it is very important to still consider safety. I think that sometimes it's possible to get complacent because sometimes they're a really cute little robot. They might have a name and a face. And so it's just really important to always keep safety in mind, even as they become more, for lack of a better term, likable. Yeah.

Sean Riley:

Likable robots.

Keren Sookne:

Yeah.

Sean Riley:

I like that. That's good. Anything else that you came across on the show floor?

Keren Sookne:

In terms of robots, not really, but I'm wondering if you guys want to talk about material, sustainability.

Matt Reynolds:

One more robot thing though.

Keren Sookne:

Yeah.

Matt Reynolds:

You mentioned floor space.

Keren Sookne:

Mm-hmm.

Matt Reynolds:

Just basically floor space is at a huge premium.

Sean Riley:

Yes.

Matt Reynolds:

Bringing in these large format items is difficult.

Sean Riley:

Kind of a non-starter.

Matt Reynolds:

People are trying to automate, they just don't have the space for automation. Frequently we find that to be the case. I spoke to Jordan Hamrick today. He's launching at this show, they're in Central Hall somewhere, what he's calling a combo bot. They're in Ohio, and he had a lot of customers, brands, CPG customers that were having trouble with floor space, first of all. But then also with small format cases like sub four inch, like smaller cases. Keren, you might be interested in this because this has to do with pharma, with nutraceuticals, with even OTC kind of stuff. Individual boxing. This combo bot was actually two FANUC robots in tandem, working in tandem. One pulling a small case, not really a carton, but an actual case, but sub four inches off of a two-dimensional card stock, basically erecting that. And then in tandem, well picking and placing, in this case it was a personal care product of some sort.

Sean Riley:

Mm-hmm.

Matt Reynolds:

I think it might've been perfume or something along those lines. Cosmetics, I guess I could see too, personal care, but all in the tiniest footprint you can imagine because these were two tandemized or robots that were working in tandem. One was slightly larger payload to handle the liquids that were being... The one that was just erecting the case was a smaller payload, but working within the same monoblock, I guess you'd call it, for lack of a better term, within the same small gate cage. This is not a collaborative situation, but just the small footprint, small sizes, fast speeds, it's what people are turning to robots for.

Sean Riley:

Interesting. And that's, again, I hate to keep speaking as if it's replacing people. It's not even that it is replacing, but there's a workforce shortage of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that need to be filled. And these seem ideal for especially something like that that's kind of serving two purposes.

Matt Reynolds:

Yeah. Well, I can imagine this being... I mean, if you were a contract packager or CMCP, these are just the sheer flexibility and the availability of these things to do multiple different tasks. Now, in this case, in the demo that we saw, it was a one four inch case, but that could have gone up to 12 inches. And you can separate the tandemized robots by a certain, you can make this larger to accommodate larger settings. When you think of somebody who needs to go from one product to another, maybe once a year or once a month or contract package or once a week, you can get multiple different use cases out of a single installation.

Sean Riley:

Love it.

Keren Sookne:

And that reminds me, so this is not in robotics, but it's just a reminder in terms of small footprint and a problem that many people face is that the out feed or the conveyor coming off of one machine is not matching the in feed of the next machine. And so kind of need to bridge that gap between those two in an efficient way. And I think a lot of the times it does end up being kind of a manual process, but let me make sure I'm getting the name right. This morning I visited Span Tech and their mini micro span transfer, which is an automated way to convey materials in an even smaller footprint than basically what they had before. It's just kind of talking about maximizing your floor space and automating whatever you possibly can. And this was their way of meeting that industry need where you need to be able to convey materials from one machine to the next, but it has to be done in this tiny footprint and the out feed and the in feed aren't matching up. And so it's just a way to basically make your facility more versatile and more automated in that really small footprint.

Sean Riley:

I love it.

Matt Reynolds:

Constrained spaces, inability to grow. Yeah.

Sean Riley:

Yeah.

Keren Sookne:

Very constrained.

Sean Riley:

We hit on a bunch of automation, a bunch of robotics. Is there one thing we can give that's not in the robotics sector?

Matt Reynolds:

Well, I'm not going to see what I had planned to see today. I'm not going to get to see it till tomorrow, but on the material side, we've been following, for some reason, Australia has been just the ground zero for paper packaging replacing traditional flexible packaging.

Sean Riley:

Okay.

Matt Reynolds:

Australia, we saw it rolled out with Mars, Snickers, Milky Way earlier this year. They're doing a pilot with paper packaging, flow rack packaging, paper pack, fiber-based, recyclable, curbside recyclable packaging that is working on existing Mars equipment. That's a really key thing for the brand owner.

Sean Riley:

It's huge.

Matt Reynolds:

I mean, I'm sure there's some sort of small retrofits that need to be done.

Sean Riley:

Mm-hmm.

Matt Reynolds:

The tearing and the heat sealing, you can heat seal or cold seal. The properties are different with paper than they are with the traditional [inaudible 00:09:49] packaging used in flow wrap, but it's done to such a capability that the brands, they're not having to make these huge capital outlays to make this switch. Nestle did it also in Australia. Nestle did it with Kit-Kats in one of their provinces, province in Australia. Is that right?

Sean Riley:

Sure. Let's go with it. State

Matt Reynolds:

State, province, one of those. Sure.

Sean Riley:

Sure.

Matt Reynolds:

And then, yeah, even a tea company was using Kohler paper. They had been using a metalized oriented polypropylene obviously for barrier properties because it's tea, it's something that over time will lose its taste, its aroma and so on. But paper, and they're not giving away the secret sauce. We don't know what it is, but it's some sort of usually clay or some sort of mineral kind of treatment that's used that adds to the shelf life. And again, most importantly, this equipment or these materials are running on existing equipment.

Keren Sookne:

Okay, yeah. I just came from ProAmpac's booth and they have their new Kick it to the Curb initiative. And so basically they recognize that in the US, packaging needs to be curbside recyclable if it's going basically maximize its potential to be recycled.

Sean Riley:

We're not great at putting in things in the right containers.

Keren Sookne:

No, it's already a challenge as it is. It's stored drop off has its place, but they're trying to maximize how much these things actually make it, so curbside it is. That's their focus. And so they debuted just this week or just this morning, a high barrier paper product, which it's good for applications including frozen dry foods and powder applications for form fill seal. And so the interesting thing here, it's like what Matt was saying, is that these are grease resistant, fiber-based curbside recyclable packages. And so this does not have any PFAS in it. They can't say in terms of what you're saying, it's proprietary.

Matt Reynolds:

Secret sauce. Yeah.

Keren Sookne:

It is a secret sauce. I can't tell you that it's a coating or a lining or it's something that's embedded in the material itself. But that is their proactive recyclable RP 1000. And so they have high barrier and standard barrier options. And something interesting is that it's pre how to recycle qualified. If you guys are familiar with the very ubiquitous how to recycle symbol that's on packages, it's pre-qualified, I believe, my understanding is correct, that customers will still have to take it through some process to make sure that they can put that on there. But the material itself is qualified. It's just making things easier, streamlining and making sure that you can put that symbol on, which will then hopefully increase the chance of these packages making it into the proper waste stream.

Sean Riley:

Awesome. Well, that's all the time that we want to take from you guys right now. I want to thank you all for coming and hearing what Keren and Matt had to say. I want to thank Matt, I want to thank Keren from taking time to come up here to do this and enjoy the rest of your show.

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